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Legal Baptism

by Tim O'Hearn

We in the churches of Christ regularly and adamantly insist that we are not a denomination. We have published tracts saying that we are “Neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jew.” Yet it is possible for the non-denominational church of Christ to become the denominational “Church of Christ.” When we turn the grace of God through the Messiah into a legalistic check-list we become a denomination. Paul told the Jews in Galatia, “Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.” (Gal 5:4) When we become purely legalistic in our views, we are like those Jews.

Perhaps the one subject that is most prone to such legalistic treatment is immersion for remission of sins. As I stated in another article in this issue ("Progressive Doctrines"), baptism is necessary. It is essentially prerequisite to, or more properly concurrent to, forgiveness of sins. Without it is no salvation. But when we take grace out of baptism and replace it with legalism, we err. Over the past year or two I have seen examples of just such a substitution.

The first area of danger is in requiring baptism by the “proper” person. In all the scriptures on immersion in the New Testament, and even in the Old Testament, the matter of who does the baptizing appears to be unimportant. Most of the passages address only the recipient. “Repent and be baptized.” (Acts 2:38) “Arise and be baptized.” (Acts 22:16) “As many of us as were baptized…” (Rom 6:3) “As many of you as have been baptized…” (Gal 3:27) Paul even said he was glad he had not baptized many, lest they take pride in the baptizer rather than the savior. (1 Cor 1:14-15) What appears important is not who does the immersing, but why one is immersed. It appears that anyone who wants to be baptized for remission of sins may have it done by anyone. It doesn’t matter whether it is a Baptist preacher, a Muslim Imam, or an atheist. To require that one be baptized in a “Church of Christ” baptistery by a “Church of Christ” preacher ignores the purpose and effectiveness of immersion.

Greek myth says that Achilles’ mother was told to baptize the baby Achilles in the river Styx and no weapon could harm him. In immersing the baby, his mother held onto his heel, leaving him vincible to heel injury. He was subsequently killed during the Trojan War by an arrow to that heel. Recently I was present at a baptism in which the individual went under the water, except an elbow. I don’t know if anyone else noticed. I chose not to say anything because I felt that doing so would be more legalistic than scriptural. Perhaps technically he was not really immersed. Perhaps the elbow went under as some other part of him came out of the water. Is God going to condemn him on a technicality? I hope not. If someone later questions his baptism, that would be the height of legalism. In such a case, legalism could become our Achilles heel.

Immersion is not a work we do. It is significant that it is something that is done to us rather than by us. It saves not because we check it off a list but because it symbolizes the death of the sin sacrifice upon which we depend. Baptism, properly understood, is a work of God. If you take God’s grace out of baptism, you might as well just get wet. We say the denominations are wrong who say you are saved before immersion Just as wrong, just as much a denomination, is a church or an individual who takes the grace out of immersion.